One of the many things I hated about my summer job working at the Great America amusement park in Santa Clara, California, was having to dress like I just stepped out of a covered wagon. I worked in an ice cream parlor in Hometown Square, a knockoff of Disneyland’s Main Street with quaint, overpriced shops, a railroad station, and banjo music tinkling out of speakers hidden in the marigold beds. Every day I had to put on a puff-sleeved blouse and a pair of culottes that was supposed to look like a skirt but didn’t. The red or blue fabric was patterned in little stripes and rosebuds, like the wallpaper in an old lady’s bathroom.
I had just completed my freshman year at Berkeley, and working at the amusement park was my first real job. In 1984, when I worked there, Great America was owned by Marriott, which I can confidently say is the cheapest company I ever worked for. Each employee was allowed only one uniform at a time. I’d trade the dirty one in for a fresh one at the end of my shift. The company kept the uniforms in a big room walled off by chain link, as if we were dying to steal a wardrobe of Little House on the Prairie finery (or, for those who had the misfortune to work in Yankee Harbor, blue polyester bell bottoms).
At the ice cream parlor, no one was allowed to eat any ice cream except the manager, who would make a sundae when she opened at 10 a.m. to “test” for spoilage. The inventory system couldn’t have been too efficient, though, because they never noticed the cans of Reddi-wip that disappeared after hours when some employees got high off the propellant.
Everything we sold at the shop ended in $.96, so most orders involved giving four cents change. I can only assume that some marketing guru at Marriott thought people were incapable of rounding up from 96 and realizing a $4.96 sundae essentially cost $5. I’d shovel out pennies, crack a new roll on the till, shovel out more. Which was fine until word came down that the park was experiencing a penny shortage. For a day or so, I had to annoy every hot, harried, price-gouged customer by asking “Do you have a penny?” so I could give a nickel instead of four cents in change. It further slowed the line that stretched out the door and into the hot July sunshine. Then one day, pennies reappeared, rolls of them. But not shiny new pennies. Each paper roll was filled with dull pennies corroded black and green. Marriott had dredged all the pennies out of the fountains and the reflection pool and put them in the till.
Because I was an English major, I thought the pennies were a perfect metaphor for everything that happened in the park. Marriott took the dreams of customers and turned them into cash. Strangely, though, I never saw myself as a party to it. As far as I was concerned, we were victims—the people shelling out an extortionate amount for a scoop of red-, white-, and blue-swirled ice cream, and me, paid minimum wage to scrub the dried butterscotch sauce off the mirror behind the counter and nursing burned fingers from the waffle cone makers.
Though I was the most rule-abiding young lady imaginable, I wrote a tiny piece of graffiti (in pen!) on a rusted outdoor table in the employee break area: “Just Who is the Five O’clock Hero?” It was the title to a song by The Jam, which opened with a man complaining to his wife or girlfriend as he came home from work. This job was the first time I had worked more than a couple of hours, and this song spoke to me. I came home splattered with hot fudge and with hair smelling of waffle cones, and my arm ached from scooping hard ice cream all day. I couldn’t wait to get back to my real life of sitting in coffee houses and holding forth on James Joyce. It never occurred to me that the title was a question, and that the real Five O’clock Hero could be the long-suffering person who had to listen to someone complain about work all the time.
Though a perk of working at the park was a free pass, I couldn’t understand the employees who’d change out of their uniforms and go back in the park to ride the Turn of the Century or the Tidal Wave. I hated the place so much I maintained my best Berkeley boycott against it for a good decade, though Marriott sold out soon after that summer.
Years later, working at a high-tech company in Silicon Valley, I finally went back to the park for an employee event. It was October, and they billed it as a Halloween party, where employees could dress up and ride the rides after the meeting. I didn’t wear a costume—I still hate to be told to wear one—though I thought about mimicking my old Hometown Square getup. “I used to work here,” I told my colleagues. I launched into my stories about the jacked-up prices, the awful music, the pennies. They listened politely.
I was surprised to find myself charmed by the park’s ornate double-decker carousel reflected in a pool strewn with shiny nickels and pennies. Hometown Square was cute, with its old-fashioned firehouse and gazebo. Cheesy, sure, but what’s so wrong with that? I was actually a little sad to find that employees now wore bland khaki pants and blue logo shirts. The building I used to work in was no longer an ice cream shop—it sold candy, old-fashioned swirled lollipops and striped candy sticks. “It was right here,” I said to my coworkers, like all the Valley old-timers pointing out the places where orchards used to be.
It wasn’t the park, or even the company, I’d hated so much, I realized. It was working. Learning for the first time that much of life was filled with doing things you didn’t want to do. Not swooning over Yeats’ poetry but toiling away, simply to put money in your pocket. The trick, which I never learned that summer, is to find any enjoyment you can at what you do. OK, maybe not a Reddi-wip nitrous high, but would it have hurt me to ride a roller coaster? To laugh at the wallpaper culottes? I shook my head at my younger self, hurrying out after her shift with her head down, cringing at Neil Diamond’s “Coming to America” spouting from the hidden speakers, and not even looking up to see the fireworks glittering overhead.
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